Sex and the Swamp Thing

Alan Moore likes sex. This makes him something of an anomaly in the world of comic book writers. I’m not saying that other scribes don’t enjoy the pleasures of the flesh in their off hours, but relatively few are interested enough in the erotic as a subject to make it a part of their writing.

Of course, there are all kinds of reasons for this prudishness—not the least of which is industry censorship—but the result is that comic books are largely a sex free zone. To the degree that sex does appear in comics, it mostly takes the form of suggestively drawn female characters. At best, that’s an adolescent way of dealing with sex, and at worst it’s something darker—with the sex drive either implicitly rejected or sublimated into violence.

Alan Moore is the great exception. At least in the world of mainstream comics, he’s the longstanding king of the perverts. In V for Vendetta, for example, his dystopian London is populated by people with a range of sexual appetites, and often in the series, sex has a desperate hue. We first meet the main character, Evey, when she is trying to make some money as a prostitute. A side story follows abused wife Rosemary Almond, who sleeps with a man she hates after her husband is killed, and then later becomes a stripper. Helen Heyer, the wife of chief state spy Conrad Heyer, wields sex like a weapon, manipulating men at every turn—including her cuckolded husband. Bishop Lilliman, the head of the state-sponsored church, is a child molester. And on and on. Even the mysterious V himself is strongly implied to be a gay man who was used as a scientific guinea pig because of his sexual orientation. In the most emotionally effective section of the entire series, Evey reads the tale of Valerie, a former actress who died in the same concentration camp as V because she was a lesbian.

Moore fruitfully explored the limits of sex in mainstream comics in the pages of The Saga of the Swamp Thing during his historic run on the series from 1983 to 1987. He recast the character of Swamp Thing and reconfigured the world the creature occupied, changing him from a man-turned-monster into a mystical creature born of the earth’s essential elemental forces. Later in the series, he took this process a step further—sending Swamp Thing into space, making him a cosmic entity.

What’s interesting here is that the progression of the Swamp Thing from a backwoods ghoul into a intergalactic traveler is punctuated at every turn not so much by violence (the series, at least under Moore, was never heavy on action) but by eroticism. Swamp Thing’s relationship with Abby Arcane isn’t some subplot, it is the main story of the series. The question of what kind of relationship a woman can have with a giant walking vegetable was answered in spectacular fashion in issue #34, “Rite of Spring.” This issue is one of the most remarkable pieces Moore has ever written. Beautifully drawn by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, with colors by Tatjana Wood, it is an issue-length communion between the Swamp Thing and Abby—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When Abby eats a tuber from Swamp Thing’s body, things get trippy and weird—and sexy. More than anything else Moore did on the series, it dramatizes the writer’s theme of the interconnectedness of all living things.

Later in the series, Abby and Swamp Thing are secretly photographed in the process of a naked frolic in the marsh by a sleazy opportunist who sells the pictures to the press. Abby becomes a pariah in the press. Fired from her job and hounded out of town, she flees to Gotham where, almost immediately, she’s arrested on suspicion of being a prostitute. When Swamp Thing gets word of this outrage, he takes on all of Gotham City, including its most famous protector.

Soon after, Swamp Thing is forced to leave earth and begins an Odyssey-like adventure across the galaxy, trying to get home to Abby. On one planet populated entirely by blue vegetation, he creates a mirage from the flora, manipulating it all into the form of his lover. When this blue illusion won’t do, he is hurdled further across the universe, at one point encountering an entire planet, Technis, which tries to take him as a lover. Swamp Thing does indeed help her procreate (conjuring echoes of Odysseus’s sexual enslavement by Calypso, which in some post-Homeric accounts resulted in the birth of sons).

Since Moore left Swamp Thing in 1987, the series has passed through many talented hands. No one ever put quite the emphasis on sex and mysticism as Moore, though. Years after leaving Swamp Thing, Moore’s interest in the erotic resulted in fascinating independent works such as his graphic novel Lost Girls with artist Melinda Gebbie. The book concerns the sexual adventures of three women years after they achieved fame as children (Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Wendy from Peter Pan). Moore also wrote a book-length essay, 25,000 Years Of Erotic Freedom, a history of pornography and erotic art. The first line of this tome perfectly captures the playful spirit of the thing: “Whether we speak personally or palaeoanthropologically, it’s fair to say that we humans start out fiddling with ourselves.”

It’s also fair to say that, in all probability, some people will find Moore’s emphasis on sex and its connection to mysticism to be tiresome or inappropriate for the medium of comic books. To that, one could only say that in a field that is shaped and defined largely by violence, its nice to have at least one giant of the field whose interest in bodies giddily encompasses its more creative, and procreative, functions.


Jake Hinkson is the author of the books Hell On Church Street, The Posthumous Man, and Saint Homicide. Read more about him at JakeHinkson.com. He also blogs at The Night Editor.

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